Season Is Here
I want you to know I did my homework for this
column: I contracted a virus. No, not a computer
virus. The other kind--that little bit of
free-floating DNA that invades your cells, takes
over the machinery, and replicates itself. (I
wanted my reporting to be authentic.)
A computer virus is similar: a renegade bit of
computer code that invades computers and typically
replicates itself by sending itself to every person
in your e-mail address book. The difference, of
course, is that the latter kind is the product of
Many of you dear readers now have first-hand
knowledge of viruses of the computer kind, thanks
to the most virulent outbreak ever that occurred in
September. The culprit was "W32/Swen.A". The
unlucky victims, which was just about everyone,
received a very official-looking e-mail message
that purported to be from Microsoft about a
security patch. Attached was an executable file.
Clicking on that brought disaster.
Which brings us to lesson #1. NEVER click on an
attached file unless you personally know the sender
and are expecting the file.
Good old "W32/Swen.A" spread like wildfire. I
must have received it well over a hundred times.
I'm still receiving it today. It not only sent
itself to everyone in the address book but also
scanned the hard drive for e-mail addresses. It
also attempted to turn off any security measures on
the infected system.
Microsoft hastened to remind users that while it
does indeed send out security messages on occasion,
it would never send out an attached file. You might
want to check this helpful
page on Microsoft's site that explains how you
can tell if a Microsoft security-related message is
Also available on Microsoft's site is a helpful
page on security
and privacy that includes a guide on how you
can make sure your PC is protected.
Lesson #2 is that you must protect yourself.
It's not enough to be careful about opening
attachments. You really need to have some sort of
virus protection software on your computer and to
update it regularly.
For one thing, not all viruses arrive via
e-mail. The recent "Blaster" virus that spread
around the Internet in August did so by accessing
computers directly via the network. Actually,
properly speaking this wasn't a virus but a worm,
which, unlike a virus doesn't infect other
programs, but simply sends copies of itself to
other computers on a network, such as the
Two of the more widely used commercial antivirus
programs are made available by McAfee and Symantec.
There are also some freeware solutions. A version
antivirus software is free for personal use and
has gotten some good reviews. Avast
is also free for home users for noncommercial
To get an overview of virus software, a good
place to start is our old friend About. The
Software section gives information about the
latest outbreaks, has links to free and commercial
antivirus products for a variety of platforms, and
even includes information about virus hoaxes and
myths. Also, a good site for tracking the latest
infestations is the Internet
security center operated by Carnegie Mellon
Unfortunately, viruses and worms aren't the only
thing you need to worry about. If you have a direct
connection to the Internet such as DSL or cable
modem, you need to also be concerned about people
breaking into your computer. The solution is a
Again you can find a good introduction to
security on About. And again there are links to
freeware and commercial products.
So what antivirus software do I use? Ah, well,
um . . .
Your computer geek uses no antivirus software. I
actually have Norton Antivirus installed but
haven't kept it up to date since my annual
subscription expired and I had trouble with the
company's web site when I was trying to renew
I've got to get that taken care of. Meanwhile,
my e-mail provider (Lisco) uses Postini, which is
quite effective in blocking e-mail borne viruses.
And my University has solid firewall protection for
the campus network.
In addition, I use a Macintosh. The latest
version of the Mac operating system is fairly
immune to viruses, in part because it's based on
the Unix operating system, which is more
Unlike Windows Mac OS X comes with its ports
shut and locked; it asks for a password if a
program tries to install itself; it has a core OS
that not even an administrator can alter; etc.,
Now if my body were so immune . . . . Achoo!
© 2003 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.